Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 21, 2001
Sara F. Matthews-Grieco and Sabina Brevaglieri, eds. Monaca Moglie Serva Cortigiana: Vita e immagine delle donne tra Rinascimento e Controriforma Florence: Morgana Edizioni, 2001. 286 pp.; 403 b/w ills. Paper $27.50 (8885698751)

In recent years, numerous publications focusing on women in early modern Italy have appeared, and this volume, consisting of six essays by well-known scholars, is a welcome addition to the list. Developed in conjunction with the Progetto Donna of the Council for Public Education in Florence, this work is a fine example of combined public and private interests in gender history based on interdisciplinary studies. The unique value of this well-produced book rests in its collection of an extraordinary 403 illustrations, particularly from prints of the period that offer rare insight into the socially constructed norms for nuns, wives, maidservants, and courtesans. Miraculously, this wealth of visual documentation is available for less than thirty dollars, placing the volume within reach of anyone interested in women’s history in Italy from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Given that four of the six contributions were originally written in English and have been translated into Italian, an English edition of the book, which would reach a wider audience, would be particularly welcome.

The opening essay by Caroline P. Murphy, “Il cicolo della vita feminile: Comportamentali e pratiche di vita,” examines images related to a woman’s life: Adolescence, marriage, maternity, and widowhood are the main focal points. Her sources include Cristofano Bertelli’s print The Ages of Women (1582), fashion plates from Cesare Vecellio’s Habiti antichi et moderni (1590), and emblems from Andrea Alciati (1546), as well as paintings and drawings by well-known artists. She suggests that the popular and inexpensive print medium may reveal the era’s expectations about female comportment and appearance, but she also raises important questions about the significance of the images: Were women “socialized” by these works?

The combined male rhetorics of the Christian religion, humanist culture, and medical “knowledge” successfully constructed women as the weaker sex. This inevitably affected women’s education, work, and financial status, the subjects of Olwen Hufton’s essay, “Istruzione, lavoro e povertà.” She points out that not only was women’s work less plentiful and less well-paid than men’s, but also that it is unclear to what extent women controlled their earnings. A woman was certainly more vulnerable in the workplace, and the death of a spouse or her own reduced energy or abilities—because of illness or old age—could rapidly reduce her to poverty. Using some ninety illustrations, Hufton surveys women’s work in the country and the city, particularly in the cloth industry and within artisan households, where wives often worked with their husbands. She also discusses the impact of sixteenth-century Catholic reform on the instruction of ordinary women, who needed to be educated in order to teach their children proper Catholic truths and to act as models for their daughters.

Gabriella Zarri’s essay, “La vita religiosa tra Rinascimento e Controriforma. Sponsa Christi: nozze mistiche e professione monastica,” focuses on didactic prints—often directed to nuns themselves—that reveal aspects of convent life between the Renaissance and Counter Reformation. In the first section, Zarri addresses issues of image and identity, particularly in relation to the religious habit. Numerous illustrations are presented from Filippo Bonanni’s three-volume Catalogue of habits for male and female orders, published in Rome in the early eighteenth century. The second part of the essay discusses the taking of vows as a mystical marriage to Christ, using St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Catherine of Siena as exemplars. Useful here is a comparison of the profession ceremony before and after the Council of Trent, illustrated by two sets of prints: one from the Pontificale Sacrorum Rituum, published by Lucantonio Giunti in Venice in 1520, and the other from the Pontificale of Clement VIII, published in Rome in 1595. In her final section, Zarri looks at daily life in the convent, discussing the particular Rule (Benedictine, Augustinian, or Franciscan) and the Constitutions drawn up to define an order’s way of life. Zarri also examines the organization of space and time within the convent, using for illustration Stefano Zocchi’s designs of 1717 for San Giuliano in Via Faenza, Florence.

The mystical side of female religious life is further discussed by Anna Scattigno in her essay, “‘I desiderij ardenti’: Penitenza, estasi e martiro nei modelli di Santità,” which examines the most popular models for holiness among Counter-Reformation nuns. Catherine of Siena was an obvious choice, but her image changed in the sixteenth century from that of an active, empowered woman to that of an ecstatic visionary enclosed within walls—an exemplar imitated by the nun-saints of the period, such as Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi and Caterina de’Ricci. Mary Magdalen also lost her more vigorous, preaching persona to become the model of penitence, solitude, and self-denial, completely consumed by her love of God. This theme is also evident in popular prints of the violent martyrdoms of early Christian saints such as Cecilia and Agatha; these images sometimes suggest a tension between the heroic and the erotic.

Bette Talvacchia’s essay, “Il mercato dell’Eros: Rappresentazioni della sessualità femminile nei soggetti mitologici,” meets the erotic head-on. Although she discusses some famous series of prints, such as Marcantonio Raimondi’s I modi, she is more interested in the tradition of the single-sheet print where subjects such as the Allegory of Love, Mars and Venus, and nymphs and satyrs received a wide variety of interpretations, including humorous ones, usually based on role reversals. Talvacchia’s plentiful examples include prints by Cristofano Robetta, Agostino Carracci, Marco Dente, Eneo Vico, René Boyvin, and Léon Davant.

The final essay, by Sara Matthews-Grieco, “La ‘natura’ delle donne: Rappresentazioni biologiche e (im)moriali dall’allegoria umanista alla satira sociale,” deals with the issue of representing the “Nature” of women, whose biological and moral identity was often constructed as being opposite, if not antagonistic, to that of men. Using primarily prints of the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries from central and northern Italy, she presents a wide spectrum of images (moral, allegorical, and satirical) to highlight three popular polarities of the period: the distinction between Nature (female) and Culture (male), the conflict between flesh (the lascivious nature of women) and spirit (the intellect of men), and the (un)natural desire for women “to be on top,” reversing the proper hierarchy of gender. Not surprisingly, the images produce a female identity constantly in need of control by the patriarchal institutions of Family, Church, and State. Even the Nature-Woman alliance, which on the positive side represents fecundity and abundance, requires male supervision to prevent its dissolution into untamed excess.

All of the essays address the question raised at the outset by Murphy: What relevance did the images of women, particularly those in prints, have for the men and women who viewed them? Did the popular print impose shape on the lives of women, or did the competitive print market fall back on tried and true “bestsellers” that could turn a quick profit? To suggest a modern parallel: Is the “dumb blonde” of television sitcoms a viable index of modern American views of women or merely a vehicle for canned laughter? It was not the aim of this volume to provide a comprehensive answer to these larger questions, but one is grateful for the signposts set out to indicate further useful exploration.

Carolyn Valone
Rome, Italy